Let’s get this out of the way first: Thank you for the gratifying rush of questions in response to my Best Indian Films list published earlier this month. The most common of the lot was, “When will you give us your Best Hindi / Telugu / Tamil / Malayalam Films?”
A separate list for each language industry, in a nation that produces a couple of thousand films a year, is humanly impossible to do for a single journalist. This is why critics have areas of expertise, just as political reporters have beats. However, I will certainly give you a compilation from the industry that has been my field of focus for years now: Hindi.
Before we list out the winners, here are 6 lovely films that were also in contention for the top slots.
Who in Bollywood would choose as their film’s hero a physically and behaviourally constipated old man?
Answer: Director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi, who earlier teamed up for Vicky Donor, a film with sperms and semen as its focal point yet – wonder of wonders! – not a single ewww-worthy joke.
Piku brings together Deepika Padukone playing a short-tempered entrepreneur from whose name the film draws its title, Amitabh Bachchan as her crotchety septuagenarian father with tummy troubles, and Irrfan Khan as Rana Chaudhary, a taxi company owner who finds himself thrown between them on an unplanned road trip.
Toilet humour is a dominant element in the film, yet it does not veer towards being a juvenile crapfest of the kind you might expect from Hollywood’s Farrelly brothers or Bollywood’s Team Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum. This in itself is an achievement. Even more commendable is the manner in which the comedic stream – unrelenting, unpredictable and hilarious – takes nothing away from the family and friendships around which Piku revolves.
The starting block of the story is Piku’s relationship with her testy Baba, but what envelopes later reels in warmth and tenderness is the developing, as-yet-undefined bond between the young lady and the older Rana. Who knew electricity could flow between Deepika and Irrfan? It does.
If you must visit a stereotype, do it the Shoojit-and-Juhi way, laughing with the Bengalis through the Big B’s Bhaskor Banerjee, rather than at them as most habitual community cliché users do.
The unexpected bonus here is Moushumi Chatterjee playing Piku’s maternal aunt. The pretty veteran was a firebrand in 2013’s Bengali film Goynar Baksho. Is she choosing to act less or is male-obsessed Indian cinema not offering her enough worthwhile parts?
For this and so much else, bless you Piku!
If half a film could be featured on a list, then debutant Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan might have been my No. 1. Vicky Kaushal’s brilliant turn as an educated, professionally ambitious boy from a traditionally low-caste family, in love with a poetry-loving upper-caste girl played to charming effect by Shweta Tripathi is affecting in ways that no words can explain.
The direction of this portion of the film is assured, the writing (by Varun Grover) impeccable, the acting perfect. Apologies for sounding dramatic, but whenever I think of those two innocent, ill-fated lovers, I sigh and my heart breaks into a million pieces, only to heal itself with the memory of Vicky’s smile.
This boy is God’s gift to womankind and to acting.
Less engaging is the other half of Masaan featuring Richa Chadha and Sanjay Mishra as a troubled father and daughter. Individually they’re powerful characters, together though their relationship lacks something in its execution. Still, her strength, her sexual experimentation, the authorities’ response to it, her spirit that refuses to be subdued even through a traumatic phase and her determination to escape her suffocating environs are compelling to say the least.
Most moving though is the film’s spotlight on clandestine relationships and this excruciating question: how do you mourn the loss of your beloved when no one else they love knows you were together or is likely to think you had a right to be?
There goes my wretched heart again.
This one too is a directorial debut. If Masaan is muted and poignant, Kanu Behl’s deceptively titled Titli (meaning: butterfly) is distressing and in places, difficult to watch.
This is a story of a violence-prone, car-jacking threesome of brothers and their instinctive bonding. The youngest (Shashank Arora) – named Titli because his late mother had been hoping for a daughter when he was born – is planning his escape from the nest when his elder siblings (Ranvir Shorey and Amit Sial) get him married to tie him down. The new woman (Shivani Raghuvanshi) in their so far all-male home comes armed with a fiery disposition and a secret.
Despite the appearance of a boys’ club, Titli is a stinging, unspoken condemnation of patriarchy. Ranvir delivers a career-best performance and Shivani is simply superb.
The detailing in the depiction of Delhi – her sociology and geography – is commendable.
Interestingly, Kanu’s co-writer on Titli is Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s director Sharat Katariya. What a dream year it must be in which you can showcase your versatility with two vastly contrasting films within a span of just a few months. Equally a cause for celebration is that Yash Raj Films co-produced Titli, an unusual project for a studio closely identified with flying chiffons, acres of tulip and mustard fields, spotlessly made up women and immaculately turned out men.
These developments and the emergence of distinctive new voices like Neeraj and Kanu could well be reason enough for history books some day to single out 2015 as a watershed year for Hindi cinema.
Margarita With A Straw
Hindi films centered around persons with disabilities have too often concentrated on the disability rather than the person. Margarita With A Straw is different. Shonali Bose’s film stars Kalki Koechlin delivering a remarkable performance as a woman whose cerebral palsy does not define her. Able backing comes from the ever-dependable Revathy playing her Aai.
Laila Kapoor is talented, sociable, sexually adventurous and wheelchair bound. Who would have predicted that such a woman could ever be the heroine of a cheery Hindi-English film from a once-formula-driven industry? In the not-too-distant past, she would in all likelihood have been placed in a dismal or melodramatic, high-strung film. This is not that kind of venture.
For the most part, Margarita… is realistic in its portrayal of Laila’s physical constraints even while remaining positive at all times. Is the sunshine too much? Just occasionally it does seem so, but in a cinematic scenario that more often than not appears to assume that those with physical challenges must lead all-round depressing lives, optimism makes for a pleasant change.
Dil Dhadakne Do
It is weird that Anil Kapoor has received Best Supporting Actor noms in this awards season, because Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (DDD) is one of those rare Hindi films with an ensemble cast. Clearly Bollywood award givers have not evolved as far as the industry has.
Anil in DDD plays business tycoon Kamal Mehra who is determined to keep up the appearance of a happy marriage with his wife Neelam (Shefali Shah). He bullies his son (Ranveer Singh) over his career inclinations while failing to recognise the evident entrepreneurial talents of his daughter (Priyanka Chopra) who, as it happens, is stuck in a loveless marriage. High drama occurs on the high seas when the Mehras take off on a cruise to celebrate Kamal and Neelam’s wedding anniversary in the company of their high-society ‘friends’.
The allure of DDD lies in its honesty about families. Nobody is as perfect as Sooraj Barjatya’s clans suggest. Kamal is an adulterer whose hypocrisy is exposed by his children. The easy route to the portrayal of Neelam would have been to excuse her as a helpless victim. Instead the storyteller refuses to accept her pretence that she did not know of or could have done nothing about her husband’s affairs.
The highlight of the film though is the brother-sister bond. It is a measure of Priyanka and Ranveer’s considerable acting talents and the quality writers they are working with that they could switch from playing such believably close siblings to the sexual chemistry between their characters in Bajirao Mastani within the same year.
DDD is highly entertaining and makes several points that mainstream Bollywood would usually not dare to make: that most human beings are flawed, some flaws are worth forgiving but some are not, most families are flawed, some are worth fighting to preserve while some are not. Take that, Mr Barjatya.
In a national context where “religious sentiments” are more prone to getting “hurt” with each passing day, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is one of the most cleverly handled films on communal amity you will ever see. Director Kabir Khan pulls at every conceivable heart string with his story of a Pakistani Muslim child called Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) who encounters the Hanuman bhakt Bajrangi (Salman Khan) when she gets lost in India. Bajrangi is a man with a golden heart yet many prejudices derived from his background, but that tiny girl could melt a glacier. And she does.
His efforts to return her to her family across the border coupled with the intrinsic commentary about India-Pakistan and inter-religious harmony, could be seen as an enterprise in courage in a country that just months earlier was battling fundamentalists’ demands for a ban on PK and threats of violence. The film soldiered on anyway, getting an entire nation to fall in love with a Pakistani tot and getting Bajrangi – a committed vegetarian and a devout Hindu from a family affiliated to the Sangh Parivar – to sing and dance to a song with lyrics that go “Thodi biryani bukhari / Thodi phir nalli nihari / Le aao aaj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye (Bring on some biryani / Bring on some meat preparations / Never mind my religious restrictions today)”.
Salman is his usual self in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a star aware of his charisma. There is more to Harshaali than her irresistible cuteness – the kid can act. She is a scene stealer along with a man who walks on to the screen half way through the story and walks away with the film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
I confess the play-it-safe ending almost ruined the film for me, being such a contrast to the refusal to mince words even while avoiding treading on touchy toes until that point. Yet in the denouement, perhaps to assuage the feelings of those Sangh members and acolytes who were offended by PK, the film has the Muslim child yelling out the words “Jai Shri Ram” repeatedly whereas a reformed Bajrangi merely makes a gesture towards Allah hafiz but stops short of saying the words. Ah well, sadly, such is life. We cannot blame artists alone for being overly cautious when we have repeatedly failed to protect them from the wrath of communal goons.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is intelligent, sensitive and fun.
(For the winning top 5 films of 2015, watch this space)